“Nooo! Please! Have mercy!” The man’s screams fell on unsympathetic ears as he was dragged through the streets by the soldiers. “I’ll leave the country. Anything you ask. Please.”
Whispers of magus and execution spread through the crowd.
Rae watched helplessly as he was dragged away. There wasn’t anything she could do for him without getting killed herself, which would accomplish nothing as he would still die as well. Despite that, her stomach remained knotted and her muscles tight with the need for action. All she could do was pray and even that probably wouldn’t save the man.
The bitter taste of fear coated her mouth, making her gulp down nerves. Rae took a deep calming breath as she continued walking through the city streets. It wasn’t like the humans could tell she wasn’t one of them after all. She was no Fae with obvious physical differences. Not that she’d ever seen a Fae. She just heard they looked different.
Nerves danced up her spine. All she had to do was get through this city to the port then she’d be home free. Off to a country where she wouldn’t be persecuted for what she was, a user of magic or, as the humans called them, a magus.
Corthira was a bustling city with lots of people moving to and fro. She heard shouts of vendors trying to sell their wares and saw street performers with cups and hats on the ground hoping for coins. The smells of cooking and various perfumes filled the air. It was a very different place from her humble little village where she’d been born and raised.
For her, it was perhaps the most dangerous place in the country. Being of magic was punishable by death in all of Vitali and this was the seat of power in the country. If ever she was going to be turned in for what she was, this would be the place it happened.
It will be fine, she reminded herself as she worked her way through the streets. Once I reach the port, I’ll be on my way to Cavos.
Cavos was a country across the ocean where magic was openly accepted. She was sure that she could find her place there.
As she walked, Rae noticed a change in her surroundings. The buildings began to look more worn and the people more ragged. Instead of street performers, she saw beggars. The previously pleasant scents turned into unpleasant filth. She could sense the sudden increase in the pain of those around her ranging from malnutrition to broken bones. This must be what she heard others call The Slums. Areas of cities where the poor and criminals lived.
Her grip tightened on her only bag of possessions. She’d heard that areas like this were dangerous to those not cautious enough to pay attention. The people here were either desperate or had given up on life. Neither option resulted in good people. The magic her mother spoke of would not thrive here.
“Please, Master Gavino, you can’t just walk away.”
The desperate plea had Rae instinctively looking down one of the dirty streets - well, more like an alleyway - to her left. A woman was on her knees. Tears streaked down her dirty face. Like most people in this area of the city, her clothes were plain and had seen better days.
In contrast, the man she begged help from was well-dressed. His dark eyes held disgust as he scanned the area around him.
“If you leave he will die,” the woman continued to plead.
Rae’s heart squeezed painfully. She found herself turning towards the poor woman though she didn’t take a step closer.
“You said you can’t pay me,” the man she called Gavino said dismissively.
“I don’t have that kind of money. Please. There must be something.”
“If you can’t afford the treatment then there is nothing I can do,” he sneered as he walked away.
The woman covered her face as all hope left her body.
Now Rae walked over to kneel next to the woman, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe I can help.”
The woman jerked with surprise then looked up at Rae. She saw in Rae’s eyes a kindness that knew no end. It made her immediately suspicious. People with those eyes didn’t come to The Slums. “What can you do? You’re not a physician.”
“I’m an herbalist,” Rae responded. “I know enough.”
Herbalists were often women, and the title was given to those who knew something about the healing arts but weren’t allowed to be called physicians. They made the medicines and gathered the herbs necessary for treating the sick and the injured.
“My name is Rae Morandi. What’s your name?”
“Will you let me help you, Ada?”
“In exchange for what?” Her gaze still held suspicion but there was also an unwilling hope. “I don’t have much.”
Rae smiled. “Nothing. I just want to help.”
Ada had nothing left to lose so she led Rae into her…well, shack would have been a kind term for the place. Rae suppressed the urge to sneeze at the dust and dirt in the single room.
There wasn’t much inside. Against one wall was a chest where clothes were probably stored. The shelves that lined one corner of the room held the few meager cooking supplies Ada owned. Despite the obvious poverty, the room felt homey. Maybe because of a single, plain vase filled with simple flowers sitting on the same shelves as the cooking supplies.
Lying on a pallet shoved into the corner was a man with the hard muscles of someone who worked hard. Scars covered his arms and hands. He shivered despite being under blankets. Then again, those blankets couldn’t have possibly done much of use. They were as worn as everything else.
“This is my husband, Santo,” Ada told her, gesturing to the man. Her face tightened with pain and fear.
Rae knelt next to him and looked up at Ada. “May I examine him?”
Ada nodded jerkily.
Rae examined mostly out of form. Her magic had already told her what was wrong with him. Still, she had to appear normal.
As she removed the blankets, Rae noticed Santo’s skin was hot to the touch. That would explain the shivers. He had a fever. She checked his heart beat and breathing. When nothing seemed odd, she began looking over his limbs. On his left, lower leg she found what she was looking for. A large, deep cut ran across his calf. The skin around it was puffy and red. When she touched the injury, she noticed it was hotter to the touch than the rest of him. Even asleep, Santo winced at the contact.
“An infection,” she mumbled as she opened her bag and pulled out a small case she always kept with her.
“That’s what the physician said,” Ada told her.
“Well, if he’s worth the title physician than he should have. It’s an easy enough diagnosis,” Rae commented, pulling a short jar from the case. “This should do the trick.”
“What is it?” Ada asked.
“An ointment that will help his body fight the infection.” She looked up at Ada. “First, I need hot water if there’s any available.”
“I can heat some up at the community stove,” Ada responded as she walked over to two buckets full of water. She scooped a few cups into a pot.
“I’ll be right back.” Ada hurried out with the pot of water in hand. After a few minutes, she returned and poured the now steaming liquid into a bowl before giving it to Rae.
“Can you hold him down?” she asked Ada. “This will hurt.”
Nodding, Ada knelt next to Santo and grabbed both of his arms.
Rae pulled a clean rag out from her bag - she was not about to use any cloth from here. After dipping it and her hands through the hot water, she used it to wash off the wound. Santo woke up with a cry of pain. Ada was suddenly putting her entire weight into holding him as Rae worked quickly and efficiently to clean the wound. Once she was satisfied, she set the now bloody rag into the bowl of water and opened the jar of ointment.
“The worst is over now,” Rae told Ada, who was shaking and sweating nearly as much as her husband. For his part, Santo had passed out again from the pain, still heaving air in and out. “I’ll spread this on the wound and bandage it up.”
Once she was finished, Rae put the jar away and dug around her case until she found a vial. Prying the man’s mouth open, she tapped two drops into his mouth, then put the vial away again. Her case went back into her bag.
“Done. I’ll need to change the bandages and reapply the ointment in the morning,” she informed Ada with a smile. “But he’ll be fine in a few days.”
“What was in the vial?”
“Something for the pain and his fever.” Rae stood and stretched. “We got to the infection just in time. It’s near the stage where I would have had to cut some of his muscle and skin out to stop it from spreading.”
“He’ll be okay?” Ada asked again slowly, as if having trouble understanding it.
“Yes,” Rae answered with a soft smile. “He’ll be just fine.”
Ada began to cry again, this time from relief. “Oh, thank you so much.”
Rae gathered Ada into a hug and let her cry. “There now. It’s okay.”
Once Ada had calmed down again, she asked, “What do I owe you? I’ll pay it, even if it takes my whole life.”
Rae shook her head. “I wasn’t lying when I said I didn’t want anything except to help. You don’t owe me anything.” She picked up her bag. “I’ll be back in the morning to change his bandages.”
“At least let me take you to a place where you can sleep.”
She took in Rae’s bag and appearance. Rae knew that compared to those living in The Slums, she looked well off. Her clothes were in good condition and she was clean.
“You are obviously traveling,” Ada continued, “and there aren’t many inns in this part of the city that I would recommend. I do know of one on the edge of The Slums though.”
Rae hesitated then nodded. “Okay. Thank you.”
“No. I am thanking you for saving my husband.” Ada stood and gestured for Rae to follow her. “It’s this way.”
Ada led Rae back the way she’d come. The sky had darkened with the twilight of sunset. She could make out the new moon above, telling her it had taken her nearly a full lunar cycle to make it here from her home village. Thirty days. It had been thirty days since her father’s funeral.
Shaking that thought aside, she returned her attention to her surroundings. Despite the fading day, people still moved about on the streets. Rae tightened her grip on her bag again as she saw men watching her from the shadows with calculating eyes. Women wearing their anti-pregnancy charms out in the open began loitering on the streets, their pride and dignity taking second place to the need for food and a place to sleep.
“Don’t worry,” Ada said over her shoulder, noticing Rae’s nerves. “You’re with me so they won’t bother with you.”
“How can you be sure?”
“We don’t steal from or hurt each other. It’s an unspoken rule of The Slums. Now in The Docks, that’s a different story. There are no rules there. Be careful if you go there after dark.”
Rae nodded in agreement. It was hard to believe that there was a place worse than The Slums within Corthira.
They approached a building that was nicer than most of its neighbors. Painted on the sign hanging next to the door was a sleeping dog. Rae could read a little and saw the words ‘The Sleeping Dog’ under the painted image.
“This is it,” Ada told her. “It’s the only decent place to sleep in this part of the city. It will cost more than the others though,” she added, giving Rae a concerned look.
Rae smiled. “That’s not a huge problem. I don’t have much, but it should be enough for this.”
Looking relieved, Ada said, “I should have made sure before.”
Rae simply shrugged it off.
“I’ll leave you here.” Ada gave a bow. “Have a good night, Rae, and may the Gods bless you.”
“They already have,” Rae responded before stepping inside the inn with a final wave to Ada.
Inside, the atmosphere was warm and calm. People sat at tables with goblets full of their drink of choice. In front of a few were bowls of soup, probably the special for today’s menu. She noticed that there was a mix of people here. A few had the ragged look of those in The Slums. Others looked like they were fairing a bit better. She began to relax again.
Opposite the door, she saw an older man behind a counter talking to a costumer with a smile. The old man stepped back to cough a little before continuing. Rae’s senses told her that he needed help and soon. Judging by how bad it felt to her, there was no way he didn’t know he was ill.
The costumer he was working with waved and headed towards the door.
Rae took the opportunity to approach the old man with a smile. “Hi. I need a room for the night if that’s not too much trouble.”
“Of course.” The old man coughed again. “Pardon me.”
Rae tilted her head. “How long have you had that cough, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“A few days. It’s just allergies.”
Rae wasn’t convinced. The magic whispered through her, telling her it was more than that.
“Now, the room,” he continued, talking around the occasional cough. “It’ll be five coppers.”
Rae reached into her bag and pulled out her coin pouch.
After placing her coins on the counter, the innkeeper put them away then gestured to the second-floor balcony area where she saw several numbered doors. “You’ll have room three, Miss. Make yourself comfortable. If you’re hungry, the meal today is minestrone and will be six irons.
Rae nodded saying, “I should be fine. Thank you very much.”
Once in her room, the first thing she did was pull out her medicine case and mixed a few things together. Once she had the herbal mix tapped into an envelope, she made her way back downstairs.
“Are you hungry after all?” the innkeeper asked her.
Rae shook her head. “I just wanted to give this to you.” Handing him the medicine, she explained, “For the cough. Heat a pinch of these in warm water and breath in the fumes. If you do this for a week, the cough will go away completely.”
He looked at her in confusion for a moment. “But…”
Smiling, she told him, “I’m an herbalist.”
“Oh, I see.” Understanding lit his eyes. He started to hand the packet back, “Thank you but I don’t want it bad enough to buy medicine.”
She shook her head in refusal to take the packet back. “I don’t want any money for it. I just want to help ease your cough, so please, keep it.”
Waving, she went back upstairs where she settled in for the night.